Not long ago, I came across a job ad that was looking to hire someone who was an “absolute perfectionist.”
Yikes. That’s a red flag if I’ve ever seen one. But it’s not uncommon for people to consider the idea of “perfectionism” as a good thing. You’ll hear the word used to describe good students, master pianists, or successful CEOs.
But here’s the thing: Perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In fact, being a perfectionist can hold you back in life, ramp up anxiety, and prevent you from achieving success (whatever success means to you).
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, there’s a mantra some people use that relates to what I’m talking about: “Progress, not perfection.”
Whether you’re a mantra person or not, the meaning behind that saying can be incredibly powerful.
But what does it actually mean to focus on progress not perfection? And how can you start putting this concept into practice?
Let’s walk through the subject together and look at some examples so you can start striving for progress—not perfection.
A deeper look at “progress not perfection”
The phrase “progress not perfection” usually comes up in relation to taking on a challenge. I know that’s vague, but the mantra can be applied to anything from a new workout routine to a long-term career path.
This philosophy may be particularly helpful to anyone who has the tendency to become obsessed with perfection—to the point of paralysis or extreme frustration.
“Progress not perfection” encourages us to focus on smaller achievements instead of the end goal. Eventually, this helps us accept and enjoy things even if they aren’t perfect, because we can recognize evidence of our progress.
If only achieving a “progress not perfection” perspective was so easy! Unfortunately, it’s not something you can learn how to do in a weekend.
“Progress not perfection” is a practice—you need to learn skills and methods to consistently put progress into focus, and let go of your need for perfection. You’ll get better at it over time, but patience is a must!
How focusing on progress not perfection makes life better
So what makes it worth all of the patience needed to strive for progress not perfection?
Consider the irony built into the idea of perfection. When we focus too much on perfection, it can become completely debilitating and hold us back.
Don’t get me wrong—holding yourself to a high standard is not a bad thing. But it must be tempered with acceptance that you may not get it perfect the first time, or ever.
When we can find that kind of acceptance, something amazing happens.
For starters, you will no longer feel like you’ve failed if you don’t get something 100% right. Feeling like a failure sucks, and doesn’t serve us much good in life. So reducing the amount of time you spend feeling like you’ve failed is a good thing for your mental health.
You’ll replace these negative thoughts with new ways to speak kindly and supportively to yourself, rather than beating yourself up when you don’t get something absolutely perfect.
This shift in turn will allow you to keep pushing forward on whatever it is you’re working on without causing all that mental anguish along the way.
Sounds nice, no?
But here’s the tricky part—it’s not always easy to recognize when we are focusing too much on perfection. This is especially true if it’s a habit you’ve formed over a long time (perhaps since childhood).
Spotting the difference: Perfectionist vs. progressive thinking
Before you can begin practicing progress not perfection, you must understand what kinds of thoughts represent both sides of this equation.
Here are some of the most common types of thoughts that lead to perfectionist thinking. Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?
It has to be perfect or else it’s worthless
I need it to be as good as the example I saw
If this doesn’t work out, it’s game over for me
I won’t ever tell anyone about this until it’s perfect
If I keep pushing it will be perfect, but if not, I’ll give up
If it’s not exactly right, I’ll feel so humiliated/angry
If the above sounds familiar, you’re not alone—many people have these kinds of thoughts, especially when it comes to things that are important to them.
The key to practicing progress not perfection, is to recognize these thoughts and then counter them with phrases that focus on progress instead. Here are some examples of “progress-focused” thinking:
This is good enough for what I need right now
It’s not exactly how I want it, but I’m proud of what I did
I can start with something small first, and try something bigger when I’m ready
I am proud I finished this (even if it’s not exactly how envisioned it)
This will help me get some feedback so I can improve over time
I may not have succeeded this time, but I learned _______
The tone between these two types of thinking is like night and day. Perfectionist thinking is tough at best and brutal at worst, while progressive thoughts are forgiving, encouraging, and accepting.
Unfortunately, striving for progress not perfection isn’t as easy as just memorizing the phrases I’ve listed above.
How to start focusing on progress not perfection
Before we dive into the strategies you can use to start practicing progress over perfection, you might want to check out some of these related articles I’ve put together.
For now, let’s focus on striving for progress not perfection. Here are some strategies to try, with examples to illustrate them.
Practice the “pause and reflect” method after a setback
You know that terrible feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when something hasn’t gone how you expected? It can make you want to cry, or scream, or simply crawl into bed and forget everything.
But instead of doing those things, try this: When something doesn’t pan out how you planned, imagine yourself hitting the “pause” button. Before you make any rash decisions or allow your emotions to overtake you, take a deep breath and find a way to pause the clock for a bit. (For me, this often means a walk around the block, but you do you.)
Use this time to reflect on what has happened. Think about why whatever you were hoping for didn’t work out, and consider what parts of it were successful after all.
When you’ve reflected on it for a moment, move on to thinking about, “What next?” Take it slow—you might be surprised how often the best answer is, “I need to have a break and come back to this later.” That’s a heck of a lot better than throwing in the towel.
You decide to try out a new advanced yoga class, and it’s much harder than you expected. You can’t hold the poses, and you’re sweating and feeling embarrassed—even though the teacher is reminding you to go at your own pace.
You are getting so frustrated that you think you might just roll up your mat and leave. But you recognize that feeling, and know it’s time to pause. You let go of the pose and lie on the mat for a moment, taking deep breaths and thinking about why you’re struggling. You remember it’s your first time at this class, and you didn’t have much of a breakfast, and you’re pushing yourself too hard!
Instead of storming out of the class, you get back up and take the instructor’s advice to modify the poses and go at your own pace. You make it through the rest of class and come away thinking you’ll try again in a few weeks when you’re more prepared.
Cut back on comparing yourself to others
Quick story time: I was in a production of “A Christmas Carol” when I was a kid, and we had to sing a lot for the show. There was one boy who had an incredible voice—he could hit all the right notes with the best sounds.
I remember muttering to myself, “I wish I could sing like him.”
The music director heard me, and he looked me square in the eye and said:
“You compare, you despair.”
That has stuck with me—it’s a mantra that pairs well with “Focus on progress not perfection.” Because more often than not, our unrealistic desires are based on a comparison we’re making to someone or something else.
But when you are constantly comparing yourself to others, you’ll never feel accomplished. Because in most things, there is always room for improvement—which means there is always going to be someone who you can admire (and become jealous of).
When you hear yourself making a comparison, hit that pause button again and ask: “What do I think of this?” When you think of your own opinion, isolated from others, you may find you have a much more positive take on your progress (and care less about how perfect it is).
You’re in an art class working on a painting. You find yourself constantly comparing your art to your friend, who has made something stunning on her canvas. You wish yours was as good.
You catch yourself making this comparison, so you pause. You turn your eyes back to your own canvas, and start thinking about your own opinion of your work. You notice the vibrant colors, and the details you put into the landscape. You see some areas for improvement, but you also recognize the progress you’ve made from last week. Now, you feel proud of your work instead of ashamed.
Learn how to break up your goals into manageable steps
Want to stop perfectionist thinking before it starts? Try reframing how you think about completing your goals. Instead of focusing on the end product (and how perfect it will be), break the process up into manageable steps.
When you do this, it becomes much easier to focus on the next step you’re taking toward your goal—basically you’re training yourself to focus on the progress of things.
This practice is something that can be applied to almost any project, no matter it’s size, but it’s definitely best for those goals that feel overwhelming and intimidating.
Your boss has tasked you with organizing the company retreat. You’re honored they want you for the job—but there’s so much to do, and the deadline is fast approaching.
You feel tempted to confess to your boss that you just can’t do it—it will be a mess, and it’s going to ruin your reputation and maybe even cost you your job and—
Pause there. Instead of freaking out, you decide to get out a pen and paper and start breaking up your tasks. You write down everything that needs to get done, from ordering food to choosing a venue to making a playlist. Then you start breaking up those tasks into smaller tasks, like researching caterers, visiting three venues, and asking that colleague who moonlights as a DJ to help with music.
Suddenly, things don’t feel so overwhelming anymore. Rather than panicking, you start steadily ticking off these small tasks, feeling a sense of accomplishment as you get closer and closer to ready.
Be extra forgiving to yourself when doing something new
What do all these things have in common? They’re all stressful! Doing something for the first time is inherently uncomfortable and makes us feel vulnerable.
That’s why it’s so important to be forgiving to yourself when you’re trying something new or striving for a new goal.
For a deeper exploration of this topic, I highly recommend this podcast from researcher and author Brené Brown. In it, she talks about how to be more gentle with ourselves during what she calls “FFTs”—which stands for “F***ing First Times.”
You’ve been working on your guitar skills and decided you want to debut a song you wrote at a local bar’s open-mic night. As the night grows closer, you get more and more nervous—so much so that you almost think about walking away.
But you manage to make your way on stage, only to screw up several chords and have your voice crack on the high note. It’s humiliating, and you have the strong urge to run out of the bar and never return.
But then you remember that this was the first time, and decide to go easy on yourself. You managed to get up on stage and sing in front of a crowd—that’s impressive enough on its own! You stick around for a beer, and several people compliment you on your song. You realize you were being way too hard on yourself, and decide to practice some more and come back next week.
Do you see a common thread?
When you find ways to focus on progress not perfection, you end up clearing up the roadblocks that stand between you and your goals.
Be kind to yourself, practice patience, and keep your eye on the progress you make.